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Josephine Aspinwall Roche: A Changemaker You’ve Likely Never Heard of!

This blog post was authored by Fay Menacker, Dr.PH, RN, a volunteer in the Science Reference Section and Stephanie Marcus, science reference specialist.

I became interested in Josephine Roche when I was a volunteer doing quality control in the Library’s Collections Management Division and came across an interesting study she had authored in 1918.  My curiosity led me to a recent biography, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-century America, which presents details of her astonishing life story.

Josephine Roche, half-length portrait, 1934 (New York Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)

Josephine Roche, who was born in 1886 and died in 1976, grew up in Nebraska and came from a privileged family. Her parents, John, a banker and lawyer, and Ella, moved to Denver in 1907, when he took a position at the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, later becoming its President. Josephine graduated in 1908 from Vassar, where she embraced the liberal social and economic values taught, then received a Master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in 1910, after which she investigated the working conditions of children and immigrants for the Russell Sage Foundation. Her career, much of it as a tireless advocate for workers and children, had many chapters, mainly centered in Denver and Washington. She was the first policewoman in Denver (Inspector of Public Amusements, City and County of Denver, 1912-1913). After she and her boss cleaned up the red light district, which hurt business interests, they were fired. In 1915 President Hoover appointed her to her first U.S. government job as special agent to the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Afterwards, she returned to Denver as Chief Probation Officer for Girls (Juvenile Court, 1916-1918), and then back again to Washington to direct the Foreign Language Information Service until 1923. Her next position was at the Children’s Bureau, which had been created in 1912 by President Taft.  She left in 1925 and returned to Denver when her father became ill.

When her father died, Roche inherited stock in the coal company, and after buying more stock, she became vice-president in 1928 and president in 1929.  She invited the United Mineworkers of America (UMW) to unionize the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company (RMF), which greatly annoyed her competitors, such as John D. Rockefeller, who, along with her anti-labor father, had broken the unions after years of intense, bloody conflicts. In August, 1928, Roche and the UMW signed a historic contract that promised high wages (an unheard of $7 per hour), decent healthcare, and some involvement by workers in managing the company.  With her approach, the company’s productivity per worker became the highest in the state. The contract also initiated Roche’s long and productive relationship with the union president, John L. Lewis. Unfortunately, the other coal companies wanted to drive her out and they eventually began a price war to crush her.  At one point her workers even pledged part of their earnings to help and mounted a campaign to “buy Josie’s coal.”

The survey which originally piqued my interest in Roche was: Wage Earning Women and Girls in Baltimore: A Study of the Cost of Living in 1918, conducted for the National Consumers League, New York City (Women in Industry Series, no. 15). The purpose of the study was to learn “what it is now costing wage-earning women in Baltimore to live and what income they are receiving with which to meet their needs.” A study of 600 women had been done in 1916 in neighboring Washington by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Baltimore study used similar questions and noted some comparisons to the Washington data.

Baltimore’s tradition did not acknowledge that women might need to work. The belief was “that the cost of their maintenance should be borne by their families.” During January and February, 1918, 134 female wage earners were interviewed and 100 of them formed the basis of the study. Thirty-four were excluded because they had not worked a full year in their occupation, had lived in Baltimore for less than a year, or did not complete the interviews. The resulting group included 59 factory workers (e.g., clothing, tobacco, hats, paper bags, biscuits), 26 saleswomen, 13 clerical workers and 2 “telephone girls.” Thirty-eight percent of the women were 16-20 years old and 62% were 21 and older. Most received wages of less than $10 a week, and experience and length of employment gained them only a tiny pay increase. The belief that they were working for pin money was false, as most had others depending on their wages.  Paying for room and board, clothing and medical expenses was difficult on their meager wages, and some were undernourished. There were quotes from the women interviewed and detailed tables which included their actual expenses. The report praised the “splendid courage and strong moral fiber of underpaid girls…whose youth has been a bitter struggle and a gray middle-age of renounced hopes.”

Protecting your health. Josephine Roche, left, Assistant Secretary of Treasury, and Surgeon General H.S. Cumming, before the House Ways and Means Committee, January 28, 1935. (Harris & Ewing)

After the many jobs already mentioned, Roche unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for Governor of Colorado in 1934.  Her slogan was “Roosevelt + Roche= Recovery.” She was then asked to serve in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 1934-1937, at the same time Frances Perkins was Labor Secretary and the first female cabinet member.

While in FDR’s cabinet, Roche worked on developing a national health plan. There was intense opposition from conservatives, as well as the American Medical Association and private insurance companies.  In order for Roosevelt to get his Social Security plan passed, he had to drop universal health care.

Roche returned to the mining company after she left her cabinet post, but regularly returned to Washington to work on health initiatives.  The company was finally forced to declare bankruptcy in 1944.  The liquidation was never completed and she maintained control of the non-liquidated assets until her death.

Roche joined John Lewis in 1948 as one of the directors of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund. Funded by the mining companies, it provided health care, disability pensions, and pensions to miners’ widows.

Roche received many awards and honorary degrees, but one of the highest awards was the Albert Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association in 1956 for her work on the Fund. Today, one of the mining sites of the RMF, contains a community of affordable housing for seniors named in her honor:  Aspinwall at Josephine Commons.

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